Parashat Mishpatim (“laws” or “ordinances”)

Mishpatim – “laws” or “ordinances” – is the title of the Parsha this week. The readings cover Exodus 21:1 to 24:16.

If a man bought a Hebrew servant, he could have him for six years but on the seventh year, he had to go free. If he comes single he is to leave single. If he comes married with children, he is to leave with his wife and children. However, if he marries while in service he leaves alone, and his wife and children remain in the service of the master. If he does not want to leave his wife and children or his master, then the owner is to take an awl and pierce the man’s ear to a doorpost and the servant belongs to his owner for life.

The rules for a female servant were slightly different. She could not gain her freedom unless her owner was not happy with her in which case she was not to be sold on. She had to go free. That is unless a son of her master marries her and then she acquires the full rights of a daughter, not to be deprived of her food, clothing and love – in the case of her husband taking another wife.

Anyone who kills someone else deliberately is to be put to death. If it was an accident the person is allowed to escape safely to a place of refuge and await judgement.

Anyone who attacks their parents is to be put to death.

Anyone who kidnaps another person is to be put to death irrespective of whether or not they still hold the hostage.

If anyone is injured in a fight the person who caused the injury must pay compensation for the loss of time and the cost of treatment until the injured person recovers.

Anyone who beats their slave so the slave dies must be punished, but if the slave does not die, he is not punished since the slave is regarded as his property. The Torah does not specify the punishment.

If a pregnant woman is hit in a fight but there is no other injury, then the culprit receives a fine at the discretion of the woman’s husband. However, if there is injury the consequence is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, burning for burning, wound for wound and bruise for bruise.

A man who knocks out the tooth or eye of his slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the injury.

If a bull gores a man to death the bull must be stoned and cannot be eaten. If the bull was known to have done that before and was not kept penned up, then the owner is also to be put to death. He does though have the opportunity to redeem his life by paying the dead person’s family whatever they ask for. If the dead person is a slave, he must pay thirty shekels of silver to the owner of the slave and the bull is to be stoned.

If a bull gores another bull to death the live animal is to be sold and the money split between the owners. They also jointly must dispose of the dead animal. However, if the bull was in the habit of goring and the owner did not pen it up, then the owner of the dead bull gets paid its value by the owner of the bull that gored who also has to dispose of the dead animal at his own expense.

Property Laws

If someone steals an ox or a sheep and profits by either by selling it or using it for meat, he must pay back five cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

If you kill someone breaking into your house at night you are not guilty of bloodshed, but if you do it in daylight hours you are guilty.

A thief must make restitution for what he stole. An animal found in his possession must be restored double. If he cannot he will be sold as a slave.

If an animal grazes and someone else’s field or vineyard and damages it, the owner of the animal must make restitution.

If a fire breaks out and destroys corn the person responsible must make restitution for the cost of the damage.

If someone gives property to look after and it is stolen, and the thief is caught, the thief has to restore double. If the thief is not caught the person who looked after the goods will come before the judges who will decide what to do.

If someone borrows an animal and it gets injured or dies while in their care, he must make full restitution, but only if the owner is not present.

If someone seduces a virgin who is not engaged, he must marry her and if the girl’s father forbids the match the man still must pay the dowry.

Anyone who practices witchcraft must die. So must a person who commits bestiality.

Only make sacrifices to Adonai  (The LORD) If you offer a gift to any other deity, you are inviting destruction on yourself.

Be kind to foreigners for you were foreigners in Egypt. If you harm a widow or an orphan God will take away your spouse and children.

If you lend money to someone to get them out of difficulty do not charge interest. If you take someone’s coat as security for a loan, give it back to him by evening because he has nothing else to sleep in.

Don’t blaspheme God’s name or curse your rulers.

If your granary is full make any offerings straight away.

Dedicate your firstborn sons to God and offer Him the firstborn of your livestock.

Don’t eat meat killed by wild animals.

Justice and mercy

Don’t give false testimony to get a guilty person acquitted.

Don’t side with the crowd if they’re wrong and don’t condemn a guilty person just because they’re poor.

If you find a lost animal that belongs to your enemy return it. If a donkey is struggling under its load and it belongs to someone who hates you, that’s no excuse not to help the animal.

Don’t deny a poor person a hearing in court and have nothing to do with false accusations.

Don’t accept bribes and don’t oppress foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt.


Cultivate your fields for six years but let them rest in the seventh. Poor people and animals can eat what grows in the seventh year.

Work for six days and rest with everyone in your household on the seventh.

Observe God’s words meticulously.

Festivals and sacrifices

Three festivals are to be celebrated, that is Unleavened Bread – Pesach Harvest Shavuot – and Ingathering – Succot 

Don’t offer blood with anything containing yeast.

Don’t leave the fat of the offergings until the morning.

Bring the best of your first fruits to the Lord.

Don’t boil a young goat and its mother’s milk.

God’s Angel

God would send his Angel ahead of the people as they went into the land of the Hittites, Canaanites and Amorites. Israel would slowly drive out the inhabitants of the land. This would happen little by little until Israel was strong enough to take them all on in battle. They were not to make any treaty with them or serve their gods.

Israel’s land would stretch from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and from the desert to the Euphrates River.

Covenant renewal

Moses and Aaron approached the mountain with the sons of Aaron and seventy of the elders of Israel.

Moses sacrifices some bulls and sprinkles half the blood on the altar and half the blood over the people declaring:

“This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”Exodus 24:8 (NIV)

The people responded that they would do everything the Lord commands.

A cloud covers the mountain for six days on the seventh day Moses climbs up the mountain and disappears into a cloud and stays there for forty days

Haftarat Mishpatim                    הפטרת מִּשְׁפָּטִים

The Haftarah portion for this week’s Sedra is Jeremiah 34:8 – 22 and then another two verses from Jeremiah 33: 25 and 26.

The connection between the Torah and Haftarah is freedom from slavery. King Zedekiah authorises the freedom of all Jewish slaves. The Torah says a Hebrew slave should go free after six years but now the King decrees that all Jewish slaves should go free. However, a while after letting their brother slaves go free the Jewish former slave owners see how much this generosity is hurting their pockets and go back on their word and force the slaves back. Jeremiah speaks out against these evil acts and prophesies that Judah will fall to the Babylonians, and all Judah will become enslaved to them.

The other verses from the Haftarah are spoken in the previous chapter but have a significance for all time and a great promise for the Jewish people and source of hope for us in difficult times.

 But this is what the Lord says: I would no more reject my people than I would change my laws that govern night and day, earth and sky.I will never abandon the descendants of Jacob or David, my servant, or change the plan that David’s descendants will rule the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, I will restore them to their land and have mercy on them.”   Jeremiah 33:25,26 (New Living Translation)

Messianic Message

The ordinances God gave through Moses need to be understood against the background of the social norms of the time.

They were not to associate with the other tribes of the land because if they did, they would simply absorb their practices. It was nothing to do with any form of racial superiority, but it was a lot to do with God taking out one nation among many and teaching them his values.

The guiding principle throughout the laws is justice and consideration for people who do not have the power to defend themselves. Therefore, legal principles were laid out to protect the vulnerable the poor the slave the foreigner and the unmarried woman All these individuals needed to be protected by the law. The principles would be in stark contrast to the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality of the tribes that Israel was driving out.

All these laws are the backdrop to the law of love as Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul) wrote in his letter to the believers in Rome.

Love does no harm to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fullness of the Torah.  Romans 13:10 TLV

Notice that it is the onus of those who hold the wealth and power to show compassion to those in their sphere of influence. There is no “liberation theology” encouraging the weak to rise up. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus clearly shows it was the responsibility of the man with wealth to provide for the poor man at his gate (Luke 16:19 ff).

We are commanded to show love within the context of whatever worldly system we find ourselves in. We are in the world and not part of it. We will always be strangers and foreigners since our objective is to be a light in a dark world.

This is why the Shaliach (Apostle) John said

The Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not understand it or overpower it or appropriate it or absorb it [and is unreceptive to it]. John 1:5 (Amplified Bible)

Likewise, the law on slavery was a damage limitation clause. While slavery is abhorrent to God.  Rav Shaul (The Apostle Paul) teaches masters to do their best in the context of an imperfect world.

You slave owners must be just and fair to all your slaves. Always remember that you, too, have a Master in heaven who is closely watching you. Colossians 4:1 (Living Bible)

The command of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is often misunderstood. It is also a damage limitation clause saying “no more than an eye for an eye can be taken”. This to prevent such atrocities as Simeon and Levi committed against the Shechemites (previously studied in Parshat Vayishlach Genesis 34) .

The Shechemites were annihilated because the sister of Simeon and Levi being raped. Had the law of Moses been applied, only Shechem himself would have been punished by paying a dowry to Jacob (which in those days would have been equivalent to house price money now) and Jacob would have had no obligation to give Dinah his daughter away. But Simeon and Levi committed an atrocity which could have been prevented had the Torah been in place and observed at that time.

Yeshua went one step further when he said in his Drosha (Sermon) on the mount,

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth ] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles Matthew 5:38 (NIV)

Yeshua affirmed that unconditional love by his death. He demonstrated in person how God was showing His unbridled compassion to all the inhabitants of the world.

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NLT

This article originally appeared on the BMJA website and is reposted with permission.